Not many survival stories can rival the miracle
that happened to Marine Lt. Col. William Henry Rankin in 1959. See for yourself: one bad day, this man nearly
drowned — falling from the sky! Um, are you saying that it sounds too paradoxical
to be true? Then, take a seat, I’ll tell you a story… It was July 26, 1959, when Rankin was piloting
his F-8 Crusader, a single-engine supersonic aircraft, along the North Carolina Coast. It was a high-altitude flight, and Rankin,
together with his wingman, Navy Lt. Herbert Nolan, were flying at the height of more than
47,000 ft. Their jets, nicknamed “candy stripers” because
of their unusual orange and silver-gray coloring, were moving through the air smoothly and lightning-fast. The only thing that could cause some trouble
was a storm that was raging far beneath the planes, but now, it didn’t present any threat. However, the pilots were supposed to pass
through this storm on their way to the Marine air base in Beaufort, South Carolina. Things took a turn for the worse when the
aircraft was approximately 9 miles and mere minutes away from the military base. Suddenly, Rankin’s engine quit, and the fire
warning light switched on. Unable to restart the engine that’d lost
all power, the man knew he didn’t have many options. That’s why, desperately trying to keep his
plane from gaining speed and going into a complete nosedive, Rankin radioed his partner,
“Engine failure. I have to eject.” It was a terrifying decision since the altitude
was too extreme, and the Marine didn’t have a pressure suit. The only thing that could help him survive
was an oxygen mask with a limited oxygen supply. In any case, the pilot didn’t have a choice. Without hesitation, he pulled the overhead
handle that triggered the ejection, and in no time, he was in the air, and his plane
disappeared in the clouds below. Now, Rankin was in a free fall at a height
of 40,000 feet, with a temperature of minus 65 degrees F. Usually, sport skydivers make
their jumps from a height of 3,500 to 10,000 ft. Only highly experienced experts jump from
altitudes higher than 15,000 ft. Even then, it can lead to serious complications
if they don’t have all the necessary equipment, including a pressure suit (which, as you remember,
Rankin didn’t have). That means that when the man found himself
in the air at such an unprecedented height, he experienced severe decompression. It felt as if his stomach had increased to
twice its size, and his nose seemed like it was about to explode. His eyes, ears, and mouth started to bleed. For several blood-curdling moments, the Marine
was sure that the decompression would finish him right away. Little did he know, he had a much more severe
trial ahead. Rankin continued falling, and all he could
feel besides all-encompassing fear was the shocking cold. His wrists and ankles were burning as if someone
had put ice directly on his skin. He’d lost one of his gloves while leaving
the plane, and his left hand felt completely numb. And to make matters even worse, he was still
in free fall. Of course, the pilot had a parachute, but
it was supposed to deploy automatically at an altitude of 10,000 ft. And even if Rankin had decided to open it,
he simply wouldn’t have been able to do this. That’s why, in a matter of seconds and at
a dizzying speed, the man hit the very storm he’d been piloting his plane over just minutes
before. And that’s when another calamity happened. Rankin had been falling through the black
clouds with almost no visibility for about five minutes, surrounded by lightning, rain,
hail, and violent winds, when something went wrong with the barometer that was supposed
to deploy his parachute automatically. Fooled by the violent weather raging around
the Marine, it triggered prematurely, and the man got stuck in the very middle of a
thunderstorm. But it wasn’t just any old thunderstorm. Nope, the unlucky 39-year-old fighter pilot
plunged straight into a cumulonimbus cloud. These clouds, which often look like huge puffy
mushrooms, are incredibly dense and tend to appear in areas where the atmosphere is extremely
unstable. Also, such clouds are vertical, and the peaks
of the most monstrous ones can reach the height of 70,000 ft! The taller the cumulonimbus cloud is, the
more unstable and violent it is inside. That was the circumstance Rankin ended up
in after his parachute opened too early. Conversely, even if his parachute had deployed
at the supposed altitude of 10,000 ft, the man would still have been sucked back up into
the cloud with the updraft. In any case, the pilot didn’t have time to
dwell on this. His body was tossed about as if he was nothing
more than a rag doll. He would hit the fabric of his parachute,
fall back down, and repeat this cycle again. The tossing was so bad, that even the experienced
fighter pilot felt seasick. Lightning snapped and crackled around Rankin,
and even though he didn’t hear the thunder per se, he could feel it vibrating through
his body. The hailstones were so big that at some moments,
Rankin worried they would tear his parachute. But the worst happened when the pilot was
falling through the rain – for several terrifying moments, the man was sure that he would drown. He was trying to take a breath, but only breathed
in mouthfuls of water. If he’d stayed in that region of the storm
for any longer, drowning while falling through the air would’ve become a frighteningly
real outcome. He tried to hold his breath, but it was a
very dangerous thing to do while falling at breakneck speed. Meanwhile, Rankin was also blown up and down,
sometimes as much as 5,000 ft at a time. It seemed to him like he’d been falling
for ages, with blasts of compressed air hitting him the whole time. Fortunately, not only good things, but bad
ones too, tend to come to an end. When Rankin finally reached the bottom of
the cumulonimbus tower, he’d been inside for more than 40 agonizing minutes. The pilot was shocked to discover that he
was relatively unscathed, the lightning hadn’t grazed him, his parachute was in one piece,
and he hadn’t drowned in the rainwater. The only thing he had to worry about now was
a safe landing. At first, Rankin was going down toward a clearing,
but his bad luck continued, because, at the last moment, a powerful gust of wind threw
him into a tree. The parachute got tangled in the branches,
and the pilot hit his head on the trunk. Luckily, he was still wearing his helmet and
didn’t lose consciousness. After freeing himself and staggering to his
feet, the pilot limped through the forest until he found a country road. But hitching a ride turned out to be a tough
task. Imagine a man, standing on the side of the
road, covered in blood and dressed in a soaked, ripped up flight suit. No wonder there weren’t many volunteers
to give him a lift. But eventually, someone picked him up and
drove to a payphone where Rankin managed to call for an ambulance. There, he found out what a lucky man he really
was. He had countless bruises and welts scattered
all over his body, he suffered from bad decompression effects, and he had frostbite. But other than that, the ordeal didn’t leave
any long term damage. Rankin spent several weeks in the hospital
and made a complete recovery. Later, he wrote the book “The Man Who Rode
the Thunder” where he described his experience. If you know other incredible survival stories,
let me know down in the comments! If you learned something new today, then give
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